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At All Costs: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, September 16, 2005 19:48 EDT



    "Alpha translation in seventeen minutes, Ma'am," Lieutenant Weismeuller said.

    "Understood," Lieutenant Commander Estwicke acknowledged, and turned to her com officer. "Pass the final readiness signal to Skirmisher."

    "Aye, aye, Ma'am," Lieutenant Wilson acknowledged, and Estwicke nodded to her executive officer.

    "Bring the ship to general quarters, Jethro."

    "Yes, Ma'am." Lieutenant Jethro Stanton replied, and pressed the GQ button on his console. Alarms blared throughout the ship, although they were scarcely needed. HMS Ambuscade's crew had closed up to their action stations over half an hour ago, taking their time, making certain they'd done it right.

    Readiness reports flowed back to the bridge steadily, and Stanton listened carefully, watching the icons in his display's sidebar blink from amber to a steady, burning red.

    "All battle stations report manned and ready, Skipper," he reported formally as the last symbol turned red.

    "Very good." Estwicke swiveled her chair to face Lieutenant Emily Harcourt, her tactical officer. "Stand by to deploy the remotes."



    "Unidentified hyper footprint! Correction -- two hyper footprints! Range four-six-point-five light-minutes! Bearing one-seven-three by oh-niner-two!"

    Captain Heinrich Beauchamp looked up sharply, swiveling his chair to face the petty officer. The twin, rapidly strobing blood-red icons of unknown hyper translations glared in the depths of the master plot, and the chief of the watch was leaning forward over the shoulder of one of the other sensor techs, watching her display as she worked to refine the data.

    "What do we have so far, Lowell?" Beauchamp asked the petty officer who'd made the initial report.

    "Not a lot, Sir," the noncom said unhappily. "That far out, we don't have any of the FTL platforms close enough for a good look, and the sub-light --"

    He broke off as the crimson icons vanished as abruptly as they had appeared.

    "Did they translate out?" Beauchamp demanded.

    "Don't think so, Sir," Petty Officer Lowell replied.

    "Definitely not, Sir," Chief Torricelli said, looking up from where he'd been watching the sensor tech work the contacts. "Whatever they are, they've gone into stealth."

    "Damn," Beauchamp muttered. He let his chair swing back and forth in a tight arc for a few seconds, then shook his head. "All right, Chief. How much did we get?"

    "Not much, Sir," Torricelli admitted. "We only had them on sensors for about eight minutes, and like Lowell says, that's an awful long way out for any kind of detail. Best I can tell you is they weren't anything really big. Might've been a pair of light cruisers, but it looked more like destroyers, from the little we got."

    "If that's all we've got, it's all we've got," Beauchamp said, more philosophically than he really felt, and punched the com stud on the arm of his bridge chair.

    "System HQ, Commander Tucker," a voice responded in his earbug.

    "George, it's Heinrich," Beauchamp said. "I know the Commodore just turned in, but you might want to wake him."

    "This better be good," Tucker replied. "He was dead tired before I managed to chase him off to bed."

    "I know. But we just picked up two unidentified hyper footprints -- destroyer or light cruiser range. We had them on sensors for a bit less than eight minutes, then lost them. Our best estimate is that they're still out there, just in stealth."

    "Shit." There was silence for several seconds, then Beauchamp heard Tucker inhale deeply. "Not good, Heinrich. I guess I really will have to wake him back up."



    "Good light-speed telemetry on the arrays, Skipper," Lieutenant Harcourt reported, studying the readings coming back over the whisker lasers. "Deployment profiles look optimal."

    "Skirmisher reports good deployment as well, Ma'am," Wilson added from Communications.

    "Good," Estwicke replied to both officers simultaneously. "Any sign they got a hard read on us, Emily?"

    "Impossible to say, Ma'am," Harcourt replied in the respectfully formal tone she kept for those rare special occasions when her commanding officer asked a silly question. "We didn't pick up any active sensors, of course. But there's no way of knowing whether or not we came out close enough to one of their platforms for it to get a good read on passives."

    "Understood." Estwicke's wry smile acknowledged the ever so proper smack on the wrist the tac officer had just given her.

    "I haven't picked up any grav-pulse transmissions," Harcourt added. "Anything they did get on us, aside from our footprint itself, has to be coming in light-speed. So whatever it might be, they won't have it for another twenty-five minutes or so."

    "By which time we'll have cut even the laser links and be very tiny needles in a very large haystack," Estwicke said with a nod of satisfaction.

    "Exactly, Skip," Harcourt agreed. Then she cocked her head. "By the way, Skipper, there's something I've always meant to ask."

    "And what might that be?"

    "What the hell is a 'haystack,' anyway?"



    "I don't like this, George," Commodore Tom Milligan said. "I don't like it a bit."

    The Commanding Officer, Hera System Command, and his chief of staff were hunched over the latest report from the Hera System's sensor arrays.

    "I don't either, Sir," Commander Tucker agreed. The chief of staff's face was tight with worry, but far less exhausted looking than Milligan's. Then again, he was sleeping better than Milligan was.

    Probably, he thought, because the ultimate responsibility is his, not mine.

    "Those damned ships have been hanging around for two frigging days," Milligan continued harshly.

    "We think they have, Sir," Tucker amended conscientiously.

    "Oh, of course." Milligan's irony was withering, although Tucker knew it wasn't actually directed at him. He was simply unfortunate enough to be in range. "Well, I think they're hanging around for a reason," the commodore continued in slightly less sarcastic tones. "And I don't like these readings, either."

    He tapped another paragraph of the report, and Tucker nodded silently.

    "They aren't very strong, Sir," he pointed out after a moment. Milligan looked at him, and the commander shrugged slightly. "I wish they were a little stronger. Maybe then we could at least have gotten a directional bearing for the LAC sweeps."

    The chief of staff wasn't happy about how much wear and tear they'd put on their LAC personnel. The LACs were the only search platforms they had with a chance of running down something as elusive -- and fast -- as a stealthed Manty destroyer. Unfortunately, they didn't have very many of them, and as the last two days had demonstrated, even their chance was a piss poor one without at least some sort of sensor clue to give them an edge.

    "Wouldn't have mattered much if we had," Milligan said moodily. "Our birds are too slow to run them down before they could break back across the limit and translate out. Besides, we may not know where they are, but we sure as hell know what they are."

    Tucker nodded again, not even tempted to play devil's advocate this time. The only thing those transmissions could be were scraps of backscatter from Manticoran directional FTL transmissions. Which, of course, meant the ships which had deployed the recon platforms producing them were still in the system receiving their reports . . . somewhere.

    Or at least one of them was, anyway.

    "Well," Milligan said again, bracing both hands on the tabletop and straightening his back, "I can only think of one reason for them to be hanging around this way."

    "I'm afraid I agree, Sir." Tucker smiled without humor. "Which isn't to say I wouldn't like to discover that all they're doing is screwing with our minds."

    "Just trying to convince us they have something nastier in mind, you mean?" Milligan snorted. "That would be better than what I'm pretty sure they're really up to. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be that lucky."

    "Me either," Tucker admitted.

    "And I don't much like what their damned sensor arrays are telling them, either," Milligan continued more heavily. "Damn. Who would've expected the bastards here?"

    That, Tucker thought, was a very good question. The Hera System was just over sixty light-years from Trevor's Star . . . and barely thirty light-years from the Haven System itself. That was closer to the capital system than the Manties had ever come, even during Operation Buttercup, but Hera was scarcely a major bastion like the Lovat System. It was important, true, but clearly a second-tier system: a significant industrial node, but not vital enough to demand a heavy fleet presence for its security. Especially not when it was only four days from the capital itself, which meant it could be quickly reinforced in the unlikely event that the Manties managed to mount a second Buttercup.

    Except that wasn't what was going to happen.

    "We've sent for help, Sir," Tucker said after a moment. "And we've brought the local defenses to Condition Two. I wish there were something more we could do, but I don't think there is."

    "No, there isn't," Milligan agreed. "It's just --"

    "Excuse me, Sir." Both officers turned to face the office door as the duty communications tech appeared in it. "Sorry to disturb you," the young woman continued, her face tight with worry, "but Perimeter Watch just picked up unidentified hyper footprints."

    "How many?" Milligan demanded sharply.

    "It looks like at least six ships of the wall, split into two groups, Sir," the com tech said. "They're coming in on converging courses, and Captain Beauchamp estimates they're accompanied by six additional cruiser-range vessels."

    Milligan's jaw tightened. Six wallers -- even six old-style wallers -- would go through his "System Command" like a pulser dart through butter. And if they were coming in separated but on converging courses, they undoubtedly meant to pincer any defensive forces between them. However unnecessary that particular refinement might actually be.

    "Very well," he said after a moment. "Instruct Captain Beauchamp to keep us informed. Then transmit a general signal to all units. Set Condition One. After that, inform Captain Sherwell that the staff and I will be joining him aboard the flagship directly. He's to immediately begin and expedite preparations for getting underway. And --" he glanced at Tucker "-- inform Governor Shelton that I'll be speaking to him shortly."

    "Yes, Sir." The communications tech braced briefly to attention and disappeared.

    "Sir," Tucker said very quietly, "if this really is six wallers, we're not going to stop them."

    "No," Milligan said bleakly. "But if they're doing what I think they are, we couldn't avoid action with them even if we tried."

    Tucker started to open his mouth, then changed his mind and nodded, instead.

    "Get with Stiller," Milligan continued. "I want an immediate evacuation of the entire orbital infrastructure. I'll get Shelton to confirm that when I speak to him."

    "And our civilian shipping, Sir?"

    "Anything that's hyper-capable and can reach the hyper limit before the Manties can bring it into range, runs for it. Get that order out immediately. Anything in their way, tries to evade, but I don't want any more dead heroes than I can help. If a ship's crew is ordered to abandon or, God help us, simply fired on, I want them to take to the boats immediately."

    "Yes, Sir."

    "As for the system defense units, we'll just have to do our best. Maybe," Milligan showed his teeth in a rictus-like caricature of a smile, "we can at least scratch their paint."




    "Unidentified hyper footprints! Many unidentified footprints at eighteen light-minutes, bearing oh-niner-oh by oh-three-three!"

    Rear Admiral Everette Beach, CO, Gaston System Command, wheeled towards his operations officer, blue eyes widening in disbelief.

    "How many? What class?" he barked.

    "We can't say yet, Sir," the ops officer replied. "Looks like a couple of ships of the wall -- might be CLACs, instead -- with at least a dozen battlecruisers or cruisers. Probably at least a couple of destroyers, as well. And --" she turned to look Beach straight in the eye, and her voice harshened almost accusingly "-- we've got a single destroyer-range impeller signature already in-system and moving to meet them."

    Beach's jaw tightened, and anger sparkled in his eyes. But angry as he was at Commander Inchman, he knew even more of his anger was directed at himself. Inchman had tried to convince him that the "sensor ghost" the arrays had picked up two days ago was really there, but Beach had disagreed. Oh, it had looked like a hyper footprint, but almost a full light-hour beyond the system hyper limit? At that range, given the rudimentary state of Gaston's sensor net, it could have been almost anything. And whatever it was, it had vanished within minutes of appearing in the first place.

    Sure it did, he thought harshly. And you were so damned sure Inchman was wrong about it's simply going into stealth, weren't you Everette? You stupid shit. You've been whining to the Octagon ever since you took over here that you needed a better sensor net. Well, genius, why didn't you at least pay attention to what you had?

    "You were right," he made himself say, a little surprised his voice sounded so close to normal. "They were scouting us."

    Inchman didn't reply. Not that he'd really expected her to. But he'd owed her that apology, and assuming he survived, he'd have to make it official in his after-action report. The one he'd no doubt have plenty of time to write after the board of inquiry beached him.

    "Signal to all units," he continued, "Condition Red-Three. Axis of threat is oh-niner-oh, oh-three-three. All merchant shipping to immediately get underway. Order the industrial platforms to commence evacuation at once."

    "Yes, Sir."



    "Right on the tick, Your Grace," Mercedes Brigham observed with immense satisfaction as Commander Estwicke's Ambuscade accelerated steadily towards rendezvous with Imperator. "And exactly where she's supposed to be," the chief of staff continued, watching the destroyer's icon on the huge plot on Imperator's flag bridge.

    "So far, so good," Honor agreed. She stood beside the admiral's command chair, watching the plot as Ambuscade's fresh tac data started coming in. Commander Daniels' Skirmisher had delivered the basic take from the two destroyers' heavily stealthed arrays six hours ago, at the prearranged rendezvous, but Estwicke had remained behind to make sure there'd been no important changes after Skirmisher's departure. Now Honor gazed intently at the star system's schematic while a skinsuited Nimitz perched on the chair's back. She felt him at the back of her mind, sharing her tension as he had so many times before, and she reached out to him with a quick mental caress.

    "I hope the other groups' timing is as good," Andrea Jaruwalski said from Honor's other side, and Honor glanced at her. "I know it doesn't really matter all that much in the greater scheme of things, Your Grace," the ops officer said with a crooked smile, "but this is opening night, so to speak. I want our audience to appreciate all the trouble we've gone to in order to impress them."

    "Oh, I imagine they'll get the message," Honor said with a half-smile of her own. She could taste Jaruwalski's excitement and anticipation, and the information from her scouting destroyers' spy mission strongly suggested that Hera was going to prove a case of severe overkill. No wonder the captain was confident of success.

    So was Honor. In fact, she'd suspected from the beginning that they were bringing along more firepower than was going to be required. But Hera was the closest of their targeted systems to Nouveau Paris, and this was the only attack going in without any carrier support at all. So she'd brought along Alistair McKeon's entire squadron . . . in no small part to make the point to Thomas Theisman that the Alliance could -- and would -- operate even its most modern superdreadnoughts aggressively this deep behind the front line systems. But, unlike Jaruwalski, Honor wasn't really looking forward to what they were about to do.

    Or to killing all the men and women who were about to die.

    "Ambuscade's upload is complete, Commodore Jaruwalski," one of the ops officer's plotting team's petty officers announced.

    "What does it show?" Jaruwalski asked, as she and Honor both moved closer to the plot.

    "CIC sees no changes from Skirmisher's data, Ma'am. It still looks like two battleships, four battlecruisers or big heavy cruisers, and less than a hundred LACs."

    "I still find that hard to believe," Jaruwalski muttered, then grimaced as Honor cocked a sardonic eyebrow at her. "Sorry, Your Grace. I don't mean to suggest Daniels and Estwicke didn't do a good job. I'm just surprised their system picket is that light, even this close to Nouveau Paris."

    Honor shrugged, never taking her gaze from the icons of the ships trapped between her own incoming forces. Skirmisher's report had allowed her to plot her own alpha translations perfectly, and the defenders found themselves caught squarely between the two prongs of her attack.

    They'd obviously realized the system was being probed and brought their mobile units -- such as they were -- to a high state of readiness, because they were already underway. In fact, they were accelerating hard, almost directly towards her flagship and its division mate, HMS Intolerant. Clearly their commander had realized she could never get outside the attackers' MDM envelope and had elected to attempt to stay as far away as possible from the four SDs of McKeon's first and third divisions. The defenders' outclassed, obsolescent ships and sparse LAC force stood no chance of survival against a pair of Invictus-class superdreadnoughts, but they probably had a marginally better chance of inflicting at least some damage on her single division before they died.

    "They can't be strong everywhere, Andrea," she said after a moment. "That's the whole point behind Cutworm. And don't forget that Ambuscade and Skirmisher probably didn't get reliable reads on any system-defense pods they may have deployed."

    "Agreed." Jaruwalski nodded. "Still, they're hanging all but naked. And I've got to say, I didn't expect to see any battleships still in commission."

    "I didn't either. On the other hand, this is an awful long way from the front. I suppose if they've got one or two left, it makes more sense to use them here than somewhere more likely to be attacked. Of course," Honor's smile was knife-blade thin, "they're going to be reevaluating where attacks are 'likely' very shortly now."



    "It's confirmed, Sir." Captain Beauchamp's expression was grim on the com screen connecting Milligan's flag bridge to the system's planet-side Defense Headquarters. "Bogey Alpha is two superdreadnoughts and three big heavy cruisers -- they look like the new Saganami-Cs. Bogey Beta is four SDs and three light cruisers. From the emissions signatures, two of Beta's wallers are Medusa-class SD(P)s. We don't have positive IDs on Beta's other SD, or on either of Alpha's, but all three of them are even bigger than a Medusa."

    "Invictuses," Tucker said bitterly. "They've got to be."

    "Here?" Milligan shook his head. "According to NavInt, they can't have more than a handful of them. Why in God's name would they send three of them this deep into the Republic to hit a target as secondary as Hera?"

    "At a guess, Sir, they're sending a message," Tucker replied. Milligan looked at him, and the chief of staff waved one hand at the ominous light codes in the plot. "We've all been assuming they'd have no choice but to pull in their horns and fort up after Thunderbolt, and especially after Grendelsbane." He shrugged. "Well, Sir, I'd say they intend to suggest we were mistaken."




    "Yes, Your Grace?"

    "Record a message for the system commander."

    "Of course, Your Grace." If Lieutenant Brantley thought there was anything odd about sending a message to the commander of a naval force one intended to destroy momentarily, no sign of it showed in his voice or expression.

    "Live mike, Ma'am," he said after a moment, and Honor looked directly into her pick up.

    "This is Admiral Honor Harrington, Royal Manticoran Navy," she said levelly. "By this time, you must be aware of the disparity of combat power between your forces and mine. I am here to destroy the industrial infrastructure in this star system, and I will do so, however regretfully. I have no interest in killing anyone when that can be avoided, however. I submit to you that the forces under your command, even assuming -- as I do -- that they're backed by a substantial number of previously deployed missile pods, can't hope to seriously damage my own units. Your vessels, on the other hand, are little more than targets. Courage alone cannot substitute for tactical inferiority on this scale. You are already inside my powered missile envelope; you won't survive to bring us into your shipboard range. Nor will your LACs survive to reach attack range of us."

    She paused for just a moment, then continued in that same level, measured voice.

    "It's obvious from your maneuvers to this point that you're prepared to do your duty in defense of this star system, however hopeless you must know that defense to be. I respect that, but I also implore you not to throw away the lives of the men and women under your command. If you continue to close, I will fire on you. If, however, you choose to abandon ship and scuttle at this time, I will not fire upon your small craft or life pods. Nor will I fire upon your LACs if you order them to withdraw and stand down. I'm not asking you to surrender your vessels to me; I'm simply asking you to allow your personnel to live.

    "Harrington, clear."

    "Clean recording, Your Grace," Brantley said, after replaying it to be certain.

    "Then send it," she said.

    "Do you think it will do any good, Ma'am?" Mercedes Brigham asked, leaning close to Honor's command chair and speaking quietly into her ear.

    "I don't know," Honor replied bleakly, rubbing Nimitz's ears as he curled in her lap. "I like to think I'd be rational enough to abandon in her shoes, but, to be completely honest, I'm not certain I would. I just know I don't want to slaughter people who can't even shoot back."




    "…asking you to allow your personnel to live. Harrington, clear."

    Tom Milligan watched the message from the tall, level-voiced, exotically attractive woman in the black-and-gold uniform and white beret silently, his eyes hard. There was no doubt in his mind that Harrington -- God, it would be Harrington, wouldn't it? -- had summarized his command's chances of survival with agonizing accuracy.

    Of course, she did wait until -- as she herself just pointed out -- she'd trapped us into entering her missile envelope, whether we'd wanted to or not, didn't she? Obviously, however concerned she may be with sparing people's lives, she's not especially concerned about what's likely to happen to my career!

    He surprised himself with a chuckle, but it was short-lived.


    He turned his head. Commander Tucker stood beside his bridge chair, where he'd viewed the message along with his commodore, and his expression was profoundly unhappy.

    "Yes, George?" Milligan asked, his voice remarkably calm.

    "Sir, she may be right about our relative combat power. But we can't just blow up our own ships!"

    "Even if she's going to do it for us sometime in the next ten or fifteen minutes?"

    Milligan nodded his head at the implacably advancing icons in the plot. Harrington's converging superdreadnought divisions were already up to a velocity of over twelve thousand kilometers per second, forging straight ahead, like twin daggers plunged directly into the heart of the Hera System. He felt a spike of pure, burning rage at the complete -- and completely justified -- confidence of their unwavering approach.

    Harrington. "The Salamander" herself, coming straight down his throat with a pair of SD(P)s while four more came right up his backside, and armed with the advantage of detailed tactical scans of the star system and his own defensive forces. No wonder she was "confident!"

    "But, Sir --!" Tucker protested, and Milligan smiled grimly.

    "George, for what it matters -- and, at this particular moment, it doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot -- my career crashlanded the instant those ships came over the hyper wall. I realize that, unlike the previous management, Admiral Theisman's unlikely to have me shot for something that obviously wasn't my fault, but someone's still going to have to carry the can for this one, and I'm elected. Under the circumstances, it's not going to make things much worse for me personally if I do what she's suggesting. And, in case you've forgotten, there are over six thousand people aboard these two obsolete, piece-of-crap battleships, alone. I'm not sure I'd take a lot of consolation from the knowledge that I got them killed for absolutely no return. In fact, what I most regret right now, is that I didn't simply order them all to turn tail and run from the outset."

    "You couldn't do that, Sir."

    "I could have, and I damned well should have! Not that it would've done much good, given her approach vectors, although at least the LACs might have been able to stay away from her," Milligan said with quiet, intense bitterness. Then he inhaled deeply.

    "Inform Captain Beauchamp that he's to coordinate the missile pod engagement from dirt-side," he said flatly. "Then instruct the LAC crews to return immediately to their launch platforms. They're to abandon and evacuate to the planetary surface, and the platform skippers are to set their demolition charges and accompany them."

    Tucker was staring at him in something like shock, but Milligan continued steadily.

    "In the meantime, I'll contact Admiral Harrington. I'll accept her offer on behalf of our mobile units, and we'll abandon ship."


    "God damn it, George!" Milligan grated. "I am not going to get thousands of people killed for nothing! I won't do it. We'll take our best shot with the missile pods, but those ships --" he jabbed his finger at the hostile icons "-- can kill anything we have from outside any range where we can even shoot back. Our 'main combatants' don't have MDMs, and our LACs are Cimeterres, not frigging Shrikes. They'd never live to reach their own range of superdreadnoughts without MDM support to cover their approach. We're fucked, and nothing we can do can change that. Do you understand me?"

    "Yes, Sir," Tucker said finally, slowly, and turned away.

    "Communications," Milligan said heavily, "raise Admiral Harrington for me."



    "There they go, Your Grace," Andrea Jaruwalski said, and Honor nodded. Her remote sensor arrays were close enough to see the drive signatures of the Havenite warships' small craft. Individual life pods were much harder to detect, even at that range and even with Manticoran sensors, but their beacons showed as a fine green haze of diamond dust glittering around the warship icons, and the ships themselves had struck their wedges five minutes earlier.

    "That isn't a happy man over there," Mercedes Brigham murmured, and Honor looked at her.

    "I've been in his shoes, Mercedes. When I ordered Alistair to surrender his ship. It isn't easy, however hopeless the situation might be. Milligan showed a lot of moral courage when he accepted my offer, although I doubt most of his critics will see it that way."

    "From his tone, I think he agrees with you, Ma'am.

    Honor snorted softly at Brigham's understatement. Milligan had actually thanked her for offering an out which would spare his people's lives, but he'd looked -- and sounded -- like a man chewing ground glass.

    "I noticed he didn't say anything about any missile pods, Your Grace," Jaruwalski observed quietly.

    "No, he didn't, did he?" Honor looked at her opns officer. Jaruwalski was as professionally focused as ever, but Honor tasted something very like frustration under the younger woman's surface. That wasn't exactly the right word for the emotion, but it came close. Andrea Jaruwalski was no more enamored of killing people just to kill them than Honor was, but the tactician in her couldn't help . . . regretting the lost opportunity to carry through with their neatly planned mousetrap and finish off the enemy ships herself.

    "I didn't ask him to stand down the pods, either, Andrea," Honor continued. "Mostly because I knew he'd refuse, just as you or I would have in his position. If I'd made the stand down of all of his defenses a precondition for my offer, he would have rejected it."

    "It might have been worth a try, anyway, Your Grace." Jaruwalski's tone was mostly humorous, but she grimaced and gestured at one of the secondary plots. "We're beginning to pick up active targeting emissions. A lot of them."

    "As expected." Honor examined the indicated plot. "Actually," she said after a moment, "there aren't as many as I'd expected. I wonder if that means they're as light on pods as they were on ships?"

    "We can hope, Ma'am," Brigham said. "Of course --"

    "There go the scuttling charges, Commodore Jaruwalski!"

    Honor and both her staffers turned towards the main plot once more. The range was still long enough that in the visual display, the brief, bright stars which once had been warships of the Republic of Haven were little more than short-lived, brilliant pinpricks. The presentation in the plot was even less dramatic than that. Seven crimson icons simply blinked once, and disappeared.

    The bright ruby light chips representing the Herrick System's LACs were still there, but they continued to accelerate steadily away from Honor's ships, obviously bound -- as Commodore Milligan had promised -- for their base platforms.

    "You think they'll turn around if their missile pods get lucky, Ma'am? Brigham asked softly, gazing at the retiring light attack craft.

    "That's hard to say." Honor considered the question for a few seconds, then shrugged. "Their pods would have to get awfully lucky to make any difference. If those were Shrikes or Ferrets, it might be different, but they aren't."

    "Missile launch!" a Plotting rating announced suddenly. "Multiple missile launches! Time to impact four-point-six minutes!"



    "Captain Beauchamp has launched, Commodore!"

    Tom Milligan looked up at the announcement. He'd been staring moodily and silently out the pinnace's viewport, gazing out into the endless emptiness which had swallowed up the dispersing plasma of his command. Now he shoved himself out of his seat and stepped quickly to the cramped command deck's hatch.

    A pinnace's sensor capability wasn't particularly good at the best of times, and the display was far too small to show much detail, but he could see the wavefront of Beauchamp's outgoing missiles. He'd been surprised when Harrington hadn't tried to insist that he agree to stand them down, as well. In her place, he certainly would have at least made the attempt. Unless, of course, her scouting destroyers had managed to tell her just how threadbare all of Hera's defenses were.




    "Estimate eleven hundred -- I say again, one-one-zero-zero -- inbound," Plotting reported. "Target is Second Division."

    "Makes sense," Brigham said quietly. "We're closer to most of their platforms, and two superdreadnoughts have to have less missile defense than four of them."

    Honor didn't respond. In fact, she was almost certain her chief of staff didn't even realize she'd spoken aloud.

    The tornado of multidrive missiles howled towards them, and whoever had programmed their launch times and accelerations had done her job well. Despite how widely separated many of the launching pods were, their coordination was flawless. All of those missiles would arrive on target simultaneously as a single, tightly focused hammer blow.

    The quiet murmur of voices behind her grew louder, more clipped and intense, as Jaruwalski's plotting parties and tactical crews concentrated on their tasks. Not that there was a great deal for them to actually do at this moment. Everything an admiral's staff could do for a situation like this had to happen earlier, in the planning and training stages, when the crews of the individual ships of the admiral's command were learning what was expected of them, and how to perform it.

    As Imperator, Intolerant, and their screening heavy cruisers were performing it now.

    As little as five or six T-years earlier, that many missiles, fired at a mere pair of superdreadnoughts, would have been both enormous and deadly. Today, it was different. In an era of pod-laying ships of the wall, missile densities like that had become something defense planners had to take into the routine calculations.

    Doctrine and hardware had required major modifications, and the modifying process was an ongoing one. The Mark 31 counter-missiles Honor's ships were firing represented significant improvements even over the Mark 30 counter-missiles her command had used as recently as the Battle of Sidemore, only months before. Their insanely powerful wedges were capable of sustaining accelerations of up to 130,000 for as much as seventy-five seconds, which gave them a powered range from rest of almost 3.6 million kilometers.

    Kill numbers at such extreme ranges were problematical, to say the least, and the incoming Havenite missiles were equipped with the very best penetration aids and EW systems Shannon Foraker could build into them. That made them much, much better than anything the People's Navy had possessed during the First Havenite War, but BuShips and BuWeaps hadn't precisely been letting grass grow under their feet, either, Honor thought grimly. Her ships mounted at least three times as many counter-missile launchers as ships of their classes had mounted before the advent of pod-based combat.

    Their telemetry and control links had been increased by an even higher factor, and each of her ships had deployed additional Mark 20 electronics platforms at the ends of dedicated tractor beams. Nicknamed "Keyhole" by the Navy, the Mark 20 wasn't a traditional tethered decoy, or even an additional sensor platform or Ghost Rider EW platform. These platforms were placed much further from the ships which had launched them, and they had only one function -- to serve as fire control telemetry relays. They extended well beyond the boundaries of their motherships' impeller wedges, like an old-style wet-navy submarine's periscope, and they gave the tactical crews aboard those ships the ability to look "down" past the blinding interference of their own outgoing counter-missiles' wedges.

    To a civilian, that might have sounded like a small thing, but the implications were huge. The Keyhole platforms were massive and expensive, but they allowed a ship to control multiple counter-missiles for each dedicated shipboard fire control "slot." And they also allowed counter-missile launches to be much more tightly spaced, which added significant depth to the antimissile engagement envelope.

    And as a final refinement, the grav-pulse com-equipped reconnaissance arrays deployed in a shell three and a half million kilometers out watched the incoming missiles' EW with eagle eyes, and their FTL data streams provided the missile defense crews aboard Honor's ships a priceless eleven-second advantage. Although the missile controllers and their AIs were still limited to light-speed telemetry links, they were able to refine and update targeting solutions with much greater speed and precision than had ever been possible before.

    Shannon Foraker had been forced to rely on mass and sheer numbers, to build a wall in space using thousands of weapons whose individual accuracy was very low. Manticore had approached the problem from a different direction, relying on its technological advantages and superior technique.

    The first counter-missile launch killed only a hundred and six of the incoming MDMs. The second, intercepting them less than ten seconds later killed another hundred. But the third launch, with almost twenty seconds for its controllers to react, killed three hundred.



    Tom Milligan turned away from the pinnace's tiny display without a word. He returned to his seat, staring out the viewport once again, and his expression was bleak.

    One hit, he thought. Surely one frigging hit wasn't too much to ask for!

    But the Republic hadn't gotten it. Only forty of Beauchamp's MDMs had broken through the Manties' counter-missiles, and the point defense laser clusters -- whose numbers also seemed to have been hugely increased -- had blasted those threadbare survivors out of existence well short of attack range.

    We knew they were improving their antimissile doctrine, but nothing I ever saw suggested that they'd improved it this much! And it's going to play hell with our system defense doctrine.

    Hera's defenses had been weak, even by the existing standards of the Republican Navy. He should have had at least three times the missile pods he'd actually been able to deploy, and they ought to have been backed up by a much stronger LAC force, at a bare minimum. But given what he'd just seen, even the defensive strength he ought to have had wouldn't have stopped Harrington.

    I've never failed this completely at anything before in my life, he thought bitterly. At least I didn't get all of my people killed for nothing, but just at the moment, that's pretty cold comfort.

    He stared broodingly into the endless ebon infinity of space. It looked so peaceful out there, so calm. And that cold, merciless vista was infinitely preferable to what was about to happen closer to the life-giving beacon of the star called Hera.



    "That's the last of them, Your Grace," Jaruwalski said. "They may have some additional pods squirreled away, but if they could have reached us with more of them, they would have. Anything else they throw our way will be lighter, easier to handle."

    Honor didn't respond for several seconds. She was gazing into her plot, her eyes picking out the icons of orbital factories, extraction facilities, power satellites, warehouses. By the standards of a wealthy star system like the Manticore home system, or of a major transportation node, like one of the Junction's termini, Hera's orbital and deep-space facilities might seem sparse, but they still represented decades of investment. They were where people worked, what powered over half the star system's economy. They represented literally billions of dollars of investment, and even more earning potential, all in a star nation struggling doggedly to overcome more than a century of ongoing economic disaster.

    And she was here to destroy them. All of them.

    "One of the platforms in planetary orbit just blew up, Ma'am," Brigham reported. Honor looked at her, and the chief of staff pointed into the plot, indicating the icon of the platform in question.

    "That one," she said. "According to CIC, it was one of the LAC basing platforms, so it looks like they're making good on Milligan's stand down order."

    "Yes, it does." Honor's chocolate eyes were sad, and her fingers caressed Nimitz's silken coat while she drew strength from the bright, fierce power of his support and love, but her voice was calm, unshadowed.

    "All right, Mercedes, Andrea," she said after a moment, turning her command chair to face them. "We came to wreck this system's space-going economy, and it would appear the way is clear. So let's be about it."

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